Judging from the stories in the newspaper, more traffic accidents have involved bicyclists the past few years, many resulting in fatalities. Data show the increase is actual and not just apparent.
Back in 1975, crashes with motor vehicles killed 1,003 cyclists, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System. Overall improvements in highway safety and medical care brought that down to 621 fatalities in 2010.
Motorists benefited too. In New Jersey, highway fatalities overall fell from 809 in 1996 to a low of 542 in 2013.
Then smartphones and complex car electronics arrived, taking the attention of drivers off the road, and the trend reversed.
In 2015, crashes with vehicles killed 817 U.S. bicyclists, a 32 percent increase in five years — and 19 percent more than in 2014.
Overall highway fatalities rose, too — to 607 in New Jersey in 2016. Atlantic County saw a jump from 29 fatalities in 2015 to 40 last year.
Public-education campaigns, technology research and newspaper editorials have pushed against this carnage from distracted driving. But the behavior of bicyclists helps cause accidents, and now cyclists are less likely to get away with practices that increase their risks.
Sad stories of tragic accidents often mention that the bicyclist wasn’t wearing a helmet.
Whatever the reason for not wearing a helmet — messes up the hair, too hot, looks geeky — it fades to insignificance compared to their proven effectiveness in saving lives.
In most bicycling accidents, the most serious injuries are to the head, and helmet use reduces the odds of head injury by 50 percent, says the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In each of the past few years, of the cyclists killed in accidents, 17 percent or fewer were wearing helmets.
Another high-risk cycling behavior mentioned in accident reports is riding at dusk or in the dark without lights on the bicycle. The peak period daily for cycling deaths is from 6 to 9 p.m., accounting for a quarter of all fatalities.
Safe cycling depends more than anything on the visibility of the bicycle and rider to drivers. Brightly colored clothing and lights are more important now that some drivers are taking their eyes off the road. New Jersey requires lights for the front and back of the bicycle during the same hours autos must use them.
Some casual bicyclists ride against the auto traffic, figuring that if they see the cars approaching they’ll be able to avoid collisions. That is quite wrong for two reasons: It increases the speed of the car and bicyclist toward each other (adding the speed of both instead of subtracting the speed of the bicycle from that of the car), and it puts cyclists where drivers aren’t expecting them or looking for them when making turns or entering a roadway.
Finally, although society relentlessly focuses on driving while intoxicated and almost never mentions cycling under the influence, it’s a significant factor. Among bicyclists killed in 2015 who were 16 and older, 23 percent had blood alcohol concentrations at or above 0.08 percent — legally intoxicated under New Jersey law.
These bad cycling habits and behaviors were always a problem. Now they’re combining with reduced driver attention to cause an acute rise in tragic accidents.
While society is pursuing ways to reduce distracted driving, bicyclists can achieve their greatest risk reduction for themselves by riding responsibly.